Even if you don’t recognize the name Nev Schulman, chances are you’ve used or heard the word “catfish” at least once in conversation. The term, which the Urban Dictionary describes as “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not,” has become so wildly ubiquitous that Schulman has managed to a build a successful career around the phenomenon. After Catfish received distribution in 2010, the quasi-documentary amassed a massive following and subsequently spawned a reality television show of the same name in 2012. Now in its fourth season, Schulman continues to serve as a co-host on the MTV program.
Before knocking out our Lucky 7, Schulman discussed online dating, his unexpected success, and the controversy surrounding him and a female student from college.
The Catfish press release calls you “The face of online dating.” Do you see yourself as that?
You know, I feel like I’m the face you don’t want to see when you’re online dating. I definitely recognize that my career has centered on the idea of catfishing, which has become one of the main vocabulary words around online dating. For anybody who is even remotely suspicious that the person they are speaking to online is being less than honest, immediately the assumption is, “Oh, they’re catfishing.” It’s crazy to hear it and see it used in articles. There was an article in Business Insider, a relatively to the point, no-nonsense magazine, and the title was, “Is Russia Catfishing the World?” It’s hard to imagine that this little indie film has now turned into a word used to reference nations deceiving each other.
When you made Catfish back in 2010, did you think it would blossom into a TV show and become hugely popular?
I was so naive at the time. I didn’t even really appreciate getting into Sundance. I thought like, “Oh cool, we’re going to a film festival.” I had no idea that the movie could sell and would sell and then come out in theaters. Everything that has happened since that movie was made has come as a surprise and unexpected turn of events.
I’m assuming you’re not so naive anymore.
Yeah, I’ve certainly learned a lot about online dating and I’ve certainly learned about the entertainment industry. I feel like I’m now a pretty well versed reality television host. I’ve done a number of things that I never dreamed I would do, like author a book. I go around to colleges now speaking to hundreds of students talking about my life and experience, and the show and the movie. I’ve even modeled for clothing companies.
What advice do you give to students on campuses?
I think I have a unique story, in terms of where I started, the past, and the sort of paths I went down, the many mistakes that I made, and the at times aggressive, but always-adventurous lens through which I’ve lived my life. As a result, I’ve had some pretty wild experiences. I’ve made some huge mistakes, but I’ve managed to come out on top along the way. I think what I try to communicate to people on the show and also in my talks and through the book is that there are so many choices and so many distractions and so many opportunities every day, whether it’s small or big, and I think a lot of young people are really intimidated and afraid, and feel a pressure to perform at a certain level or do something in a certain way, and in my case there was no way I could’ve possibly prepared for the tremendous success I’m experiencing now, except for all the decisions that I made along the way that made me the unique individual I am. I think people, especially with social media, they really tend to want to fit in and be popular and likable. As a result, we’re losing our uniqueness and individually. And we’re becoming consumers instead of creators. And I try to be as encouraging as I can for people to go out and make decisions. It’s even a little cliché, be honest with yourself, figure out who you are before you figure out how to appeal to people. The real way to appeal to people is to be somebody of value and moral standing, not tight abs and good selfies.
Speaking of moral standing, I’m curious about this article on Vulture titled, “Sarah Lawrence Student Says Catfish’s Nev Schulman Punched Her ‘Repeatedly’ in the Head in 2006”…
I’ve said everything there is to say about that. It’s not something I’m denying. It happened. There was an incident, very unfortunate, where I was attacked and acted in self-defense. What’s missing from that Vulture story and any other subsequent pick-ups is just the context of what happened. I think, as much as I regret happening, that was a time in my life, like many other points, where I was not totally in control and perhaps now would’ve acted differently. Though I don’t think I did anything wrong. But I used to be an angrier person and if somebody started a fight with me I would probably fight back. Now I don’t think I would. But I’ve grown up since then. I hope everybody has grown up since they were 19, the girl in question included. That sucked when that came out, which I openly discussed in my book. But it’s a good example of how you never can control how people perceive things. I’m able to stand behind my moral values on that.
What was your first exposure to Playboy?
I remember my parents had split up; I was probably four years old. A few years later my mom started dating a guy — his name was Chris — and one point he moved in. I probably was seven or eight and I remember finding a filing box in their bedroom where there was a stash of magazines, Playboy included. I don’t remember any kind of sexual association happening, but I remember knowing they were adult magazines and that I could get in a lot of trouble. It was exciting.
What movie scared you the most when you were a child?
I wasn’t a big scary movie watcher. If anything stands out the most, it’s that particular scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where that guy chooses poorly and face melts off. And I remember watching that as a kid and being pretty spooked by it.
What is your pop culture blind spot?
Drake is a big blind spot for me. I have not yet figured that out. I don’t get it. I’ve tried listening and I give up very quickly. I remember in middle school it was The Blair Witch Project. I remember feeling very left out back then.
If you were on death row what would your last meal be?
Initially my instinct was, “Oh I want to pick something that’s going to take a long time to prepare.” I think it would probably be a New York City everything bagel with cream cheese, lox, tomato, onion, some capers, like a really great schmeer. A perfect New York City bagel. To drink, a nice glass of Coca-Cola with ice. The Mexican bottled Coca-Cola. They use real sugar.
What was your first car?
A 1966 Volvo 122. It was a really beautiful, white four-door sedan. Her name was Beluga, like a whale. She was great. She was a workhorse.
What was the first song you knew all the words to?
It might have been, “If I Only Had a Brain,” because I played the Scarecrow in a summer camp production of The Wizard of Oz. I couldn’t have been older than eight or nine. It was a summer camp in Maine.
What was your favorite mistake?
It is Playboy right? There is some expectation that this interview might have an angle of maturity to it. So yeah … one mistake that I smile and think about occasionally was when I was at Sarah Lawrence college, it was freshman year and I was at some party. There was a girl who I had no previously relationship but I had recognize, she was an upper classman, came onto me and invited me back to her dorm room. When we got there I think her roommate had also recently come back to the dorm with a guy and so they went into her room and we into her sort of little area and had what I don’t remember to be particularly exciting or memorable sex. And then I couldn’t find most of my clothes. It was dark. I couldn’t find my shoes or shirt. It was a really messy dorm room and I had torn things off and they had went every which direction. I remember at one point even started going into the other bedroom and walked in on the roommate having sex … and was scolded out by the guy who was not happy that I had come in looking for my shoes. So I ended up having to walk across campus — mind you it was January in New York City — half-naked without my shoes. And then the next day I awkwardly had to figure out what dorm room I had been in and finally when I found the door, my shoes and shirt were sitting outside the door. That was a mistake. But it was worth it and fun. And I don’t even remember who that girl was. I know nothing of her. She could be reading this, and if she is, thanks for the great mistake.